File photo of Mount St. Helens
Wes Peck / Flickr

Conservation groups and scientists are challenging a federal decision to build a road through the Mount St. Helens blast zone, saying it would damage more than two dozen irreplaceable research plots and decades worth of work.

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Since the 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument’s blast zone, known as Pumice Plain, has provided scientists and researchers a unique opportunity to conduct studies on plots of land unlike anywhere else in the world. Some of the research started right after the blast, providing four decades worth of scientific knowledge and insight into the ways watersheds take shape, the evolution of aquatic species and mammals, and the development of new plant communities.

But the preservation of some of these research plots is in conflict with another value: protecting against the risk that water, logs and debris held back by a natural dam on the volcano’s Spirit Lake could break loose.

The May 18, 1980 eruption destroyed the lake’s only water outlet. Five years later, a 1.6-mile-long tunnel was dug into a ridge to release the water, which continues to enter the lake as rainfalls and snow melts.

But the need for ongoing repairs to the tunnel’s intake gate, along with concerns that the tunnel could be damaged in an earthquake, has led the U.S. Forest Service to authorize a new or improved intake gate and to conduct geotechnical drilling to determine possible future outflow system from the lake. And it wants to build an access road across Pumice Plain so crews and equipment can reach the work sites.

A log debris barrier on Mount St. Helens' Spirit Lake in a photo taken on Nov. 20, 2017.

A log debris barrier on Mount St. Helens' Spirit Lake in a photo taken on Nov. 20, 2017.

U.S. Forest Service

The Services’ decision says there is a need to “ensure the protection of public safety, health, property and the environment from a catastrophic breach of the Spirit Lake natural debris blockage caused by the 1980 eruption.”

The access road would be 3.4 miles in total length and 16 feet wide — and it would impact at least 25 research plots in the area.

That work is being challenged by the Western Environmental Law Center, which is representing four conservation groups and three individuals in its legal challenge against the Forest Service’s decision. Staff Attorney Susan Jane Brown said the Forest Service failed to consider alternatives and to gather input from scientists who have conducted research there.

“That inability or the lack of taking that comprehensive look threatens the scientific and environmental values that the Pumice Plain represents to not only people in the Pacific Northwest but really research globally and internationally,” she said.

The proposal would impact about 4% of the 3,840-acre Pumice Plain research area.

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Brown said she understands the importance of repairing the natural dam for public safety concerns, but the overflow is not a new or urgent issue.

“It’s something that we need to deal with but it’s not going to fail tomorrow and it’s not going to fail next week, it’s not going to fail next month,” she said. “It will fail eventually but we will have quite a bit of warning at that point should that situation arise.”

Jim Gawel is an associate professor at the University of Washington Tacoma. He’s been doing research in Mount St. Helens for more than 10 years, most recently in the Spirit Lake watershed. If the Forest Service plan moves forward, his work, along with that of more than a dozen professors and graduate students, would be impacted.

One of those projects is his research into the recent appearance of a highly invasive species called New Zealand mud snails in Spirit Lake and its tributaries. Gawel is worried that if he can’t complete his research, the opportunity to learn about ways to prevent the snail’s spread across North America could be lost.

“New Zealand mud snails would likely accelerate the spread ... possibly introducing it into regions where it might not naturally reach,” he said.

Gawel argued the Forest Service could avoid impacting his and others’ research by using helicopters for aerial transport of crews, building materials and equipment.

“We do lots of jobs where it requires people to be flown in and out,” he said. “There’s other ways where you basically fly them in and spend a week working on the job and then are flown out at the end,” he said. “That decreases the potential risk of flying out on a regular basis.”

The Forest Service says it considered helicopter transport but it rejected the idea because of weather-related safety risks.

Log mat on Spirit Lake on Oct. 8, 2019. The 1980 eruption and the associated massive landslide deposited enormous amounts of floating woody debris onto Spirit Lake.

Log mat on Spirit Lake on Oct. 8, 2019. The 1980 eruption and the associated massive landslide deposited enormous amounts of floating woody debris onto Spirit Lake.

U.S. Forest Service

John Bishop, professor of biology at Washington State University, says the plan would be extremely damaging for researchers — but also for ordinary people who want to better understand the 1980 eruption’s aftermath. The road construction and tunnel work would require the temporary closure of the Truman Trail, a hiking route across the Pumice Plain.

“Right now, when you go hiking out in the Pumice Plain as well as many other areas in the monument, you’re experiencing being in a wilderness,” he said. “You really feel that when you’re out there, you’re in a really unique place.”

The Forest Service determined the plan strikes the right balance between public safety and scientific pursuits. It plans to begin work this spring.

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Tags: Science & Environment